Cabinet colleagues visiting Exeter and other places in the South West for yesterday’s Cabinet meeting were universally impressed.
David Miliband, the Foreign Secretary, spent an hour taking questions on a whole range of foreign policy issues at Exeter University’s world renowned Institute for Arab and Islamic Studies. Subjects included Iraq, Afghanistan, Iran, Bosnia and Israel/Palestine. David told me afterwards that he had thoroughly enjoyed the experience and had rarely been quizzed on such a range of subjects in so much depth. Thanks to Tim Niblock and all his colleagues at the University for organising the event at such notice and to everyone who turned up. I’m sorry capacity constraints meant that not everyone who wanted to come could get in. But anyone has any questions or points they would like me to pass on to David please let me know. Patricia Scotland, the Attorney General, was also at the University and Exeter Crown Court. She was particularly impressed by the work being done in Exeter on domestic violence. In fact, Exeter is the best performing area in the country in reducing the level of domestic violence and helping offenders change their behaviour. Lady Scotland said those involved were doing an “absolutely brilliant job – one of the great unsung success stories of the Labour Government” and she wanted the rest of the country to emulate Exeter.
Ed Balls, the Schools Secretary was at St James’ School at my request. Given St James’ is in the top ten improved schools in the country I thought it would be great if Ed could pop in to congratulate the staff and students. He did and told me afterwards that he thought Helen the head and her team are doing a great job. I was back at St Luke’s School with Olympic gold medallist Darren Campbell to celebrate the students’ achievements in school sport. St Luke’s has one of the highest activity and sports participation rates in the country and has been leading the transformation of school sport in the Exeter area. Some of the students were also doing a sponsored walk for Haiti – good for them!Cabinet Office Minister, Tessa Jowell, who is responsible for the Third Sector, visited Devon Doctors in Marsh Barton – the co-operative organisation of Devon GPs that runs the out of hours service in the county and was recently judged one of the best performing out of hours services in England. Given recent concerns about the quality of some GP out of hours services, Tessa came away convinced that the sort of social enterprise model we have in Devon is the way forward for the rest of the country. John Denham, local government Secretary, was also at the university at the Innovation Centre – but I haven’t had a chance to catch up with him to find out how it went. Transport Minister, Sadiq Khan, met cycle user groups in Exeter to learn how Exeter has achieved the biggest increase in cycling of anywhere in Britain.
Last but not least, Deputy Labour leader, Harriet Harman, did a speech and question and answer session at Labour HQ at Clifton Hill for party members and activists from all over the region. She came away really buoyed up saying: “morale seems higher the further you get away from Westminter.” I couldn’t agree more! There may have been more Cabinet Ministers visiting places in Exeter that I missed. Any info gratefully received!Exeter Racecourse did a great organisational job. The “town hall meeting” before Cabinet went well with members of the public asking questions on issues ranging from food production, the economy, public services, skills and defence. The Prime Minister did a separate round table discussion with readers of the Express and Echo and Western Morning News during which he was asked about issues including drink driving, support for carers and the possibility of moving our clocks to continental European time. The Cabinet meeting itself included a report from South West Minister Jim Knight on the economy in the region and an update from Northern Ireland Secretary, Shaun Woodward, on the deal that had just been struck in the Northern Ireland. Cabinet colleagues said they thought it had been the best regional Cabinet yet – and the food – all local – was certainly the best.Most Cabinet colleagues left by train from Exeter, but travellers at Tiverton Park railway station had a surprise when the Prime Minister arrived to pick up the train there and, with time to spare, chatted on the platform and had his photo taken with passengers using their mobile phones.